Post-mortems of the 2016 Presidential election continue to come in as new data become available, but a primary line of interpretation seems to be already set. A new analysis by Nate Cohn of the New York Times came out just before Christmas, and it is full of data which fall neatly in place alongside that congealing story: Hillary Clinton’s fundamental campaigning flaw was that she abandoned the white working class to Trump; if she had made a serious play for these voters, she would have added a victory in the Electoral College to her (ample) popular vote win.
Cohn’s article is titled “How the Obama Coalition Crumbled, Leaving an Opening for Trump,” and in a sense it is as much a revision of standard narratives about what the “Obama coalition” was in 2008 and 2016 as it is an analysis of 2016. “Campaign lore has it that President Obama won thanks to a young, diverse, well-educated and metropolitan ‘coalition of the ascendant’ — an emerging Democratic majority anchored in the new economy,” relying particularly on a surging demographic bloc of Latinx voters. However, hidden in this triumphal narrative was a sticky fact, possibly obscured by bad exit polling: Obama’s electoral base was surprisingly dependent on the support of “whites without a college degree,” who made up 34 percent of Obama’s voters, a share “larger in number than black voters, Hispanic voters or well-educated whites.” Cohn underlines this surprising fact with two astonishing data points: “Mr. Obama would have won re-election even if he hadn’t won the Hispanic vote at all,” and he “would have won Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin” in 2008 and 2012 “even if Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee had been severed from their states and cast adrift into the Great Lakes.”
The interpretation Cohn gives to this set of facts is a fairly standard one: Clinton made her case not to the working class whites that the Obama coalition essentially rested upon, but rather misread demographic and electoral data about the 2008 and 2012 elections and forecasts for the 2016 election and decided she could win without them. Eschewing the economic populism which enabled Obama to connect with this part of the electorate (especially in the upper Midwest) and pin his opponents down as part of the 1%, Clinton instead chased affluent, highly-educated Republicans disillusioned with Trump.
It is plain that there was a sizable Obama-Trump vote, and that such a vote was largely concentrated among whites without a college degree. How to interpret that fact, however, is not as clear as Cohn (and many others), I think, believe. Cohn states that Obama and Trump “had the same winning pitch to white working-class voters,” which was to blame their opponents for the decades-long patterns of job loss in manufacturing and extraction industries, typified by autoworkers and coal-miners. Cohn points out that Obama was unable to address the latter constituency effectively, and his weakness in coal country was “a harbinger of just how far the Democrats would fall in their old strongholds once they forfeited the mantle of working-class interests.” Trump found success, meanwhile, by hammering at the issue of trade, a territory where he could effectively align Clinton (partially through her husband) with the global forces wiping out the U.S.’s blue collar jobs.
Cohn provides some more surprising data suggesting some continuity between Obama’s appeal and Trump’s: exit polls suggest that “Trump won 19 percent of white voters without a degree who approved of Mr. Obama’s performance, including 8 percent of those who ‘strongly’ approved of Mr. Obama’s performance and 10 percent of white working-class voters who wanted to continue Mr. Obama’s policies. Mr. Trump won 20 percent of self-identified liberal white working-class voters, according to the exit polls, and 38 percent of those who wanted policies that were more liberal than Mr. Obama’s.”
Implicit in Cohn’s analysis are a few hypotheticals: what if Clinton had tried to salvage at least some populist credibility with the white working class? What if a more populist candidate had run for the Democrats (e.g., Sanders)? Put a bit more forcefully, if it was Obama’s populism that delivered him wins in 2008 and 2012, why the heck couldn’t Clinton just copy his playbook? And if she could not or would not, why in the world couldn’t Democrats coalesce around someone who could?
These are questions which I have heard many people on the left asking, and they clearly need an answer. But there are some underlying ideas here—about populism and class, about nationalism and race—that I think need to be addressed first. Because I am not persuaded that we understand Obama’s appeal to the white working-class very well without talking about nationalism, and I am absolutely unconvinced that Democrats could have won with an exclusively economic populism, that is, with a message wholly about reforms of Wall Street and a more robust set of social democratic institutions or policies.
To be blunter, I don’t think Sanders’s message would have gained the Democratic ticket very many votes among whites without a college degree, because I don’t think those Obama-Trump voters were looking for a merely economic form of populism. They were looking for nationalism, and Sanders would never have given them the nationalism they desired. If you don’t buy that, minimally I’d like to suggest that nationalism provides a second thread linking the Obama and Trump appeals to the white working class.
It probably will not take much convincing for me to suggest to you that a large part of Trump’s appeal was built on nationalism. His much-vaunted slogan, “Make America Great Again,” does that without any subtlety. To make the case that Obama’s appeal to future Trump voters was primarily one of nationalism may take a little more explication. But here is where we need to think more deeply about Obama’s place in recent U.S. history and the peculiar nature of his political talents.
Like many of the most successful Presidents, Obama was able to speak in a way that resonated differently among different groups, and nowhere was that more the case than in the way he spoke about the United States. To that “coalition of the ascendant,” Obama offered a personal story about a multi-racial and cosmopolitan man who had proved by dint of his own life story that there remained some truth to the national myths of merit and equality of opportunity. Obama was evidence that, at least sometimes, the system of meritocratic higher education and political ambition worked. After eight years of an administration that time and again seemed to demonstrate the essential hypocrisy of meritocracy—starting from the top, the Bush Presidency specialized in appointing and promoting people with excellent resumes and stupid (if not also dangerous) ideas—Obama’s election and administration offered a sort of balm to those whose lives and careers rested on the validity of meritocracy. If the best the Ivy League could do was George W. Bush, then why bother? But if the best the Ivy League could do was Barack (and Michelle) Obama, perhaps meritocracy was not wholly broken.
To those whose lives and careers orbited around other institutions and who observed other principles of leadership, Obama offered a different kind of redemption. I do not think journalists—other than perhaps David Finkel and a few others—or historians or any other public intellectuals have taken the full measure of the sense of shame and embarrassment that the Iraq War delivered to those families touched by men and women in the service, or who were affected by it in some way. The incredible success of American Sniper, which almost wholly sidestepped the larger issues of the war and especially of its origin, is one measure of a deeply felt need to find some source of pride in the wreckage of a national disgrace. I think voting for Obama provided another vehicle for purging some of the shame and embarrassment of Iraq, particularly among the white working class, or that part of the white working class who voted for Obama one or both times.
It is interesting to note that both Presidential candidates who served in Vietnam have lost (Kerry and McCain), while all three with very questionable records in regards to military service (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump) have won, while Trump even very publicly insulted McCain’s status as a former prisoner of war. Whether something like that—a subtle stain of disgrace or embarrassment—may attach to future Presidential candidates with Iraq War records, I suppose we will just have to see. But the larger point is that it is at least plausible that one of the primary sources of Obama’s appeal to those working class whites who did vote for him was his absolute distance from the shame of the Iraq War. Running for re-election, Obama effectively made the claim that he had cleaned up Bush’s mess, or was in the process of doing so. (Osama bin Laden had been killed in 2011, while ISIL would not be on the radar screens of most American voters until 2014.)
In both 2008 and 2012, Obama was in a sense clean of the worst American sin: losing. That was, I’d argue, the core of a nationalist appeal which Obama offered many people who badly wanted to feel like the United States wasn’t run by a bunch of losers. That this was essentially the same promise and the same pitch that Trump—who loudly dissembled about his own record on the Iraq War—offered suggests the real nature of the thread connecting Obama and Trump for this group of white working class voters identified by Cohn. Trump, like Obama, offered a way to make America a nation of winners again.
Clearly, this nationalist appeal cuts transversally across issues of race, and the interaction of these two factors was enormously potent in the case of Trump’s campaign. But for those searching for a way to wrap their heads around the possibility of an Obama-Trump voter, I think nationalism is where we must begin. Obama is one of the most effective nationalists in recent U.S. history, even as his foreign policy trended away from the unilaterialism of George W. Bush. In many ways, those voters who swung to Trump in this last election understood Obama’s nationalism much better than his highly-educated “base” did—or perhaps they received the message he intended for them, and we received the message intended for us.
 For the sake of convenience, I’m going to use “working class whites” and “whites without college degrees” interchangeably. This equation is problematic, and the problem it skips past is actually one of the more significant in interpreting the nature of the Trump vote. Certainly, not all people who do not have a college degree would be classified in the working class on the basis of income (and vice versa) but there is enough overlap to hold this argument together for the time being.
 This latter point is to reinforce the fact that, while Clinton may have lost due to a lower turnout among African-Americans, the same rate would not have sunk Obama’s campaign because of his much, much better performance among whites without college degrees.
 I’m using “populism” here in the conventional way, meaning something like “tapping into widespread discontent rooted in economic hardship and identifying the affluent as the source of that distress.” But as Jan-Werner Muller argues in his recent (and excellent) What Is Populism?, that definition isn’t really restrictive enough to be of much use. His arguments about the nationalist dimensions of populism have deeply influenced my analysis here, although I’m still using the conventional nomenclature which separates nationalism and populism more than may actually be the case. At any rate, my argument about Sanders would be that his platform is almost wholly based on class, and really many of his ideas (and certainly a good portion of his affect) have no connections with the kind of nationalism that I’m arguing sustained a great deal of Trump’s support this year. If Democrats wanted to run a candidate to undercut Trump’s appeal, they would have been better off with a candidate who had significantly better patriotic bona fides, not one who had a more economically populist message.